Monday, October 19, 2015
13 FOR HALLOWEEN #7: No One Lives
Ryuhei Kitamura’s ‘No One Lives’ begins in media res with heiress Emma Ward (Adelaide Clemens) – missing following a mass-murder that cost fourteen lives – plunging through a heavily forested area in the middle of the night in what is obviously an escape attempt. It’s foiled by a mantrap that snares her legs and hauls her off the ground. Dangling upside down, frustrated to the point of rage, she uses a knife she had on her person to etch a stark message into a tree trunk: “EMMA – ALIVE”.
The next sequence has an affluent couple (Luke Evans and Laura Ramsey) stop at a shitty motel during a cross-country. She’s identified as “Betty” in dialogue, but the man is only referred to as “The Driver”. This, and the curiously stilted relationship between them, suggest that something in their relationship is awry. There’s a sense of depersonalization that is only emphasized later when they are threatened in a diner and there is something distinctly off-kilter about the way they react.
And who are they threatened by? That’d be Flynn (Derek Magyar), a hotheaded younger member of a gang headed up by the patriarchal Hoag (Lee Tergesen). This less-than-lovable bunch are introduced in a scene where their wholesale robbery of a mansion disguised as removal men is interrupted by the unexpected return of the owners. Hoag’s convinced that he can talk his way out of it, but Flynn’s nerve breaks and he cuts loose with a shooter. Hoag is understandably pissed off that B&E has now escalated to Murder One and he tells Flynn in no uncertain terms that he’d better do something quite special to get back into his good books.
How Flynn interprets this, his targeting of Betty and The Driver, the nature of their relationship, the interrelationships between Hoag’s gang – including his partner Tamara (America Olivo), his daughter Amber (Lindsey Shaw) and her boyfriend Denny (Beau Knapp) – and the truth about Emma fuel the next hour or so (‘No One Lives’ boasts an agreeably spare 83 minute running time) with roughly the same intensity as rocket fuel cut with Colombia’s finest. Many films treat narrative development as a case of “this happened, then this happened, then this happened”, all of it telegraphed with laborious exposition. ‘No One Lives’ treats narrative development as a cluster of pool balls smashing into each other and careering crazily around the green baize. From Kitamura’s first rug-pull – a triple-whammy of unexpected reactions/revelations – a mere twenty minutes in, all bets are off. Nothing is certain. In this movie, anything could happen with the only guarantee being that the mechanics of it are going to be brutal. The title is earned.
For this reason, I really don’t want to talk about the film in any detail. The less you know when you approach it, the more you’ll enjoy it – assuming, of course, you enjoy cynical and hyper-violent genre movies. And one of the most entertaining aspects of ‘No One Lives’ is how gleefully it dabbles in genre tropes. At any one time, it’s a stalk ‘n’ slash flick, a revenge thriller, a ‘First Blood’ style drama fascinated by fieldcraft and man-traps, and a psychological horror movie trading in Stockholm Syndrome mind games. It’s never dull. The pace is unremitting, the tension razor-sharp.
Performance-wise, Evans is terrific – he’s brooding and intense, but smart enough to underplay. Clemens owns every scene she’s in. And in the midst of hive of amorality and self-interest that characterize Hoag’s gang, Shaw manages to conjure a sympathetic non-scumbag torn between filial duty and survival.
Japanese director Kitamura – whose second American film this is, following the Clive Barker adaptation ‘The Midnight Meat Train’ – brings a hyperkinetic intensity to the proceedings, but is savvy enough to know when to allow a few character beats, a moment or two of calm before the next bout of blood-letting. He also allows himself a few riffs and visual homages to other movies, the most explicit being ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Angel Heart’, but generally keeps things on the right side of derivative. ‘No One Lives’ was saddled with a limited release and struggled to find an audience theatrically. One of the better reviews it got was “mindless entertainment done right”. Hopefully it’ll have its day on DVD, where its twists and turns and curveballs and bloodbaths are lapped up by midnight movie aficionados who’ll appreciate the tradition of exploitation cinema that it taps into and to which it pays visceral, irony-free homage.